Monday, March 31, 2014

Get Off the Interstate...Small Town America is Waiting for You!

I live on the East Coast, very near the 7th largest Metropolitan Statistical Area in the country. Yes, that's Philadelphia.  And while I've come to enjoy living there, I miss the open spaces and small towns of the Midwest.

I'll admit it -- I'm a Missouri girl.  What does that mean?  It means that I appreciate a freshly-plowed farm, the clack-clack-clack of a freight train rolling down the tracks, and the quirky small towns found on the back roads that don't have names or numbers, but letters to identify them.

Today I drove to one such small town on a quest to find my maternal great-great grandfather's grave.  Eli Reno was buried on his farm, just south of Chester, Illinois, a stone's throw from the Mississippi River.  It's about two hours south of St. Louis.  Some distant relative that I still haven't been able to place in the family tree found his grave site, as well as those of a daughter, son-in-law and grandson, back in the 1970's.  She gave me a few clues to follow in a letter sent to my mother back then.  About four years ago, a Randolph County, Illinois, historian helped me locate the farm my great-great grandfather owned.  She had been to the burial place and found the other headstones, but didn't find Eli's.  She surmised that it had fallen over and become buried in soil or under the native grasses.  She suggested that I return in the winter or early spring, before the fields were planted and the grasses started to grow, and that I bring along some tools to find it.

I packed my car with a hoe, gloves, a cold drink, my notebook and a camera.  I headed down the interstate, but soon got off on Highway 61, then onto Highway H toward Perry County, Missouri.  I drove over the two-lane Chester bridge on Highway 51 into town and stopped at the Visitor's Center. I was greeted by this:

For those of you in your 50's, you'll recognize Popeye, a cartoon character that first appeared in 1929 in the "Thimble Theater" comic strip.  Popeye, the strong, hardworking sailorman, soon became the 'star' of the strip.

Popeye, and all of his cartoon friends, were created by Elzie Crisler Segar, born in Chester in 1894, just a year after my grandmother.  They probably went to the same one-room schoolhouse as children.  Elzie took a mail order cartoon course, then moved to Chicago before breaking into the comics.  It's said that he based some of his characters on people he knew from Chester.

The city has embraced his legacy, and is erecting statues of his beloved characters all over the town.
Olive Oyl, Swee' Pea and Eugene, near the Randolph County Courthouse
The Annual Popeye Picnic is held on the weekend following Labor Day every year (  The three-day event is filled with attractions and entertainment for all ages.  A new Popeye Character Trail statue has been unveiled annually since 2006.
Wimpy's statue is near the Popeye Museum.
This is why I love the back roads of our country -- you'll never know what interesting things you find in the small little towns where people settled 150 years ago. It's fun to drive through downtown areas and see how life used to be.  It's interesting to visit local historical homes or museums, or talk to the people who to genealogical research, who are familiar with your family surname and can tell you stories about the town and its people.

Back to my quest.  I found the Reno homestead, which is still being farmed some 150 years later. However, the tree stump that was my landmark in the field was gone.  And after trudging around in the field for nearly two hours, I concluded that the headstones were also missing.  This is unusual, because most farmers are respectful of family burial plots and will plow around them.  I have the telephone number of the owner of the property -- his neighbor was kind enough to call him and ask for permission for me to hike around, and the owner thought the gravestones were still in the field. I'm hoping to talk to him soon and see if he can find them or at least talk to the man who is farming the land and see what happened to them.  At first, I was a little distressed, but then realized that the Catholic tradition of placing ashes on the forehead at the beginning of Lent has some relevance here:  remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.

And, after further reflection, my ancestry quest won't end because I couldn't locate a headstone.  The bigger question that has still gone unanswered is who were Eli Reno's parents?  It may be one that I never answer.

And while I'm a Missouri girl, my maternal ancestors were from Illinois (by way of Ireland), and now I have a real connection with this little town off the beaten path.  (And I'll have spinach salad in tribute to its native son!)

Monday, March 3, 2014

From Old Sweater to Trendy Handbag

I'm jumping onto the bandwagon of recycling old wool sweaters into felt, and here is my first project:

Felted wool purse, with a leather strap and floral print lining.
My friend Sherrie hooked me up with the Salvation Army store about five miles from my house, where every Wednesday is "Half-Price Day."  So the $3.99 sweaters I found there cost me just two bucks each!  (It's also been a gold mine of leather that I'm recycling into other things...and just wait until you see my latest t-shirt quilt project, made from 50 cent tees!)

The key to felting sweaters is to be absolutely sure they are 100 percent wool -- no nylon, no acrylic, no rabbit fur, no cotton -- just 100 percent wool.  Garments are required to be labeled with the content of the fabric, but if you happen to come across one that isn't labeled, leave it on the rack.  It isn't worth your time or money.  Brands like LLBean, Land's End and Woolrich make wool sweaters, but always check the label. Crew necks and cardigan sweaters will yield the most felted wool...don't forget to look in the men's department for larger sizes!

Some sweaters will felt quicker than others but overall, it's an easy process.  Set your top-loading* washing machine to the hottest water temperature and add about 1/4 cup of inexpensive shampoo or laundry soap like Ivory Snow (but not detergent).  Use a long wash cycle; when finished, throw the sweater into the dryer on high heat until it is just damp.  Check and see if it is sufficiently felted -- shrunken to about half its original size and the fabric is about 1/4" thick.  If not, repeat the wash and dry cycle one (or two) more times.  Remove it from the dryer while it is still damp, pat it flat, and allow it to finish air drying.  (*I tried this in my front-loading washer, it is didn't do well, so I made a run to the local laundromat.  The agitator is the key to felting.)

When the sweater is completely dry, cut it apart along the seams.  Then it's ready to turn into something fun!
The sleeves, cut apart along the seam lines.
This handbag pattern was in Sewing Basket Fun, edited by Barbara Weiland (House of White Birches, 2005).  Designer Lucy Gray made the pattern 12" by 7.5", but I enlarged it a bit to 14" by 8.5".  I cut a rectangle that size from pattern material and rounded the four corners for the purse back/flap piece.  I needed a gusset strip 3" wide by 21" long, but had to piece it because I didn't have a long enough piece of fabric.  After cutting those pieces, I folded the back/flap pattern in half to cut a purse front (7" by 8.5").
The purse pieces, cut from felt:  one back/flap, one front and two 3" strips to make a 21" long gusset.
From a half-yard of coordinating floral print fabric, I cut out all three pieces for the lining.  With the remaining fabric, I cut three 2" wide bias strips.  I sewed them together to create one long piece, then pressed it in half and machine-stitched a single row of gathering stitches along the length.

Pressing the bias trim in half, wrong sides together.
I gathered the bias strip and pinned it into place on the inside of the flap, with about 1/2" of fabric peeking out to the right side.  I basted it in place, being careful that my stitching didn't show through on the right side of the felt.

The ruffle, pinned in place along the inside of the flap.
With wrong sides together, using a 3/8" seam allowance, I stitched the gusset to the back and front of the purse.  Because I'm using felt, I don't have to worry about the cut sides fraying, and thought having the seam allowance exposed looked cute.

Sewing 'wrong sides together' leaves the seam allowances on the outside of the purse.
I decided to add a piece of plastic canvas to the gusset inside, so the bag wouldn't be floppy and could stand on its own.  I cut it 2" wide and 20" long.

With the plastic canvas inserted into the bag, it can stand by itself.
I sewed together the lining pieces using 1/2" seam allowances, and slipped the lining inside the purse, wrong sides together, to check the fit.  I removed the lining and pressed under the raw edges all around about 1/4", so it would lie a scant 1/4" below the edges of the purse.

I slipped the lining back into the bag and pinned it all around the purse edges, then top-stitched it into place, leaving a 2" opening on the flap and around the purse top.  (Note:  the book instructions called for the lining to be hand-sewn into the purse, but I really wanted it to be secure, so I decided to top-stitch it.  If I make another, I may hand-sew it.)

I cut plastic to back the snap closures.
Now it was time to insert a magnetic snap.  After marking the center point of the flap, I marked where to cut two tiny slits in the fabric, and then slipped the 'male' part of the snap into place.  I backed it with the accompanying ring, then added a 1" x 2" piece of thin plastic, to reinforce the snap.  After bending the prongs down, I glued a piece of batting over the whole set-up.  I repeated the procedure for the 'female' side of the snap, then whip-stitched the opening in the lining closed.

Place the 'male' snap on the flap, then mark the spot for the female snap.

The directions suggest using a recycled strap taken from an old purse, but I had some dusty blue suede from a jacket I had recycled, and decided to make my own strap.  It needed to be about 30 inches long, so I sewed a few pieces together to give me the correct length, then sewed two straps, right sides together, along each side.  The strap was attached to the purse with 'D' rings.

The 1 inch wide strips of blue suede were sewn together to create a strap for the purse.  
I really loved this sweater, which was from Land's End, because even though it was made of wool, it had bright, spring-like colors in it.  The floral print, which I found at JoAnn Fabrics, coordinated perfectly.  I'm really happy with the way it turned out.  However, if you are a beginner, I'd skip the ruffle made a seemingly simple project much harder.

Happy sewing!!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Cute Baby Quilts Don't Have to Be Hard

My nieces are having babies so fast, it's hard to keep up with them!

Case in point...three were pregnant at the same time -- one due in December, one in March and the third in May!

My custom is to make a baby quilt for each new great-niece or -nephew, but as my niece Gina's shower got closer, I hadn't yet started a blanket for her baby!  But I had everything I daughter helped me pick out the fabrics on our trip to Maine last summer.

We stopped in Belfast to pop in on Fiddlehead Artisan Supply, located at 159 High Street.  What a cute shop -- bright and colorful, with lots of projects on display!

In the window, we saw a cute panel by Robert Kaufman fabrics called "Bright and Buzzy."  It was designed by Laurie Wisbrun (screen print D #13774   Kaitlin thought is would be perfect for Gina's baby -- she's a doctor and her husband is a teacher.  My daughter picked out a bright yellow print for the back and a small green print for the binding...her first foray into selecting coordinating fabrics for a quilt.  She did a great job!

Panels are pretty easy to work with, but I try to put my own little twist on them.  After layering the panel over it's backing and batting, I decided to stitch around the printed 'blocks.'  Using a water-soluable blue marking pen, I drew stitching lines between the alphabet prints.

I added curves to my stitching lines to mimic the shape of the pre-printed 'blocks.'
Generally, it is suggested that quilting stitches be within 6-8 inches of each other, to hold the batting in place during use and laundering.  The overall stitching in some areas of the quilt was much bigger than that, so I decided to add detailing within some of the blocks.  For instance, I drew an outline around the apple, then stitched it with my sewing machine.

Safety pins hold the 'quilt sandwich' together while I do the stitching.

I did this for about eight letters.  To finish up, I added a narrow binding using the green print, and stitched it down by hand.

Everyone at the shower said the blanket was very cute, but I think my great-nephew is cuter!!

Photo: Thank you for the beautiful blanket Aunt Renee!! We love it!
Griffin gets some floor time on his quilt.